USS Greeneville Inquiry Reaches Further Down Chain of Command

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Navy Commander Scott D. Waddle walks past international media with his wife

Thursday, the Navy continued its inquiry into the February 9 collision that killed nine Japanese civilians and ended the careers of several submarine officers. Defense attorney Charles Gittens, hired by Commander Scott Waddle, tried to discount the prosecutorial picture of the collision by pointing repeatedly to the negligence of one fire control technician, later identified as Patrick Seacrest. Gittens' attack was, according to observers, effective inasmuch as he got the prosecuting attorney to admit Cmdr. Waddle might not have had as much to do with the accident as was previously thought.

Here, TIME congressional correspondent Douglas Waller, author of "Big Red: Three Months on Board a Trident Nuclear Submarine," (HarperCollins), offers his take on the ongoing inquiry into the USS Greeneville disaster.

Where is the defense lawyer's line of questioning going? Is he going to try to pin the collision on the Greeneville's fire control technician?

Waller: He can't. You're not going to find one fatal error that caused the submarine to collide with that fishing boat. This accident wasn't caused by one person or one single event. As with most disastrous submarine accidents, this was a result of a combination of dozens of events.

So even if the fire control technician had, for some reason, failed to do his job, this accident wouldn't have happened?

Waller: This was not due to one person's mistake. The fire control technician mans what's called the "contact evaluation plot" — a vertical sheet of paper in the control room that he marks up with different colored pencils to keep track of the locations of other ships and submarines. A contact evaluation plot is often just used as an historical record so crews can keep track of where things are — it's one of maybe a dozen tracking devices they use on a sub.

So while the fact that this technician didn't report that he thought the Ehime Maru was nearby is certainly significant, it wasn't the fatal error that caused the collision.

What were some of the other contributors to the crash?

Waller: Well, for example, the digital display indicator was broken. That's a digital screen that shows the sub's executive officer and captain the same sonar picture that the guys in the sonar shack are looking at. Having that screen broken was obviously not helpful. Then, down in the sonar shack, there should have been three or four sonar technicians as well as a supervisor keeping an eye on things. But that day on the Greeneville, there were only two technicians.

But even though the blame for the accident will be spread around, won't one person need to shoulder the bulk of the condemnation?

Waller: The captain, Commander Scott Waddle, will be pinned with the blame. This guy was responsible for everything that happened on board that ship. The question that this inquiry is trying to answer is: What kind of responsibility does he bear? Was this disaster due to avoidable human error, or was there criminal negligence involved? This inquiry will determine whether he and others will face a court-martial or criminal court trial.